“Golden in time, cities under the sand. Power, ideas, and beauty fading in everyone’s hand…” Joni Mitchell
A stream of sand falls from heaven like smoke descending to earth. It continuously cascades in a steady stream for the next eighty minutes, and through the seven realms of consciousness—segments–that make up “Umusuna: Memories Before History.” Instantly, one is transported to a phantasmagoric reality as a man, white as sand, floats ghostly and eloquently as a woman toward the stream that marks the passage of time. Just as he/she is about to go under the pouring sand he/she turns to the audience, mouth open black as crows, mutely screaming. What has artistic director Ushio Amagatsu heard that causes his ears to bleed red down his white jaw line?
Within these first few moments of Umusuna, within the distillation of movement, the simplicity of stunning elemental visuals, and the distortion of sexuality, all of Sankai Juku’s perfectly realized signatures are present. These signatures will manipulate exactly what viewers feel and see by restricting us to parts of the stage, where overly stylized movement, staging, and lighting dictate with precision our experience. At times tedious, repetitive, claustrophobic, narrowly abstract, and at others so grand to take our breath away–as in its final segment when restrictions are removed and the stage opens up fully bathed in white, with the full company transporting us to its rebirth of an ending.
Sankai Juku is, and for a long time has been, the most authentic gender-bender of contemporary dance and theater—an achievement few artists can claim. In ancient Asian dynasties eunuchs were often the purveyors of ritual, etiquette, aesthetic, and all cultural arts. Here, the blurring of sexuality exceeds our modern cultural trends towards a more accepted transgender society. This is not the androgyny of angelic cherubs but the terrifying man/woman demons of the underworld, where distortion and gut wrenching terror becomes a thing of exquisite beauty.
Gender bending is a form of social activism, and activism was intrinsic to the origin of Butoh theater. In Umusuna, part two, “All that is born,” four male dancers wear tight white corsets that seem to squeeze their black mouths open. Out of those black holes of agonized expression one can imagine hearing the primordial scream—even though they are silent. Their movement is fast and menacing as they scurry about draped in floor-length red skirts over a sand covered floor–earrings dangling from their white ears. And, again in part three, “Memories from Water,” androgyny is displayed in its embryonic stage where neither sex has been determined and movement is prehistoric–a stunning gender free pulsing and reptilian-like undulating. Here the dancers are unadorned yet unified with white makeup and short skirts.
The stakes Umusuna sets in motion are high both in expectation and in the profundity of iconography. In exalting life’s archetype, such as the passage of time, death and birth, evolution… the iconography becomes bigger than life and both the choreography and soundscape can’t keep up to their own lofty standard throughout the entire ritualized performance. And, although in classic Butoh boredom was something that was fed upon and dished back in an anarchistic way, Sankai Juku has blurred the line between Butoh and modern dance making itself more susceptible to the conventions of timing and editing. Where earlier works were not so music driven Umunsuna (2012) is–at times sounding a bit like the Japanese version of new age composer, Windham Hill which occasionally does a disservice to the magnitude of imagery and distortion of movement. Those brief segments without the blasting soundtrack were often the most memorable. (Music by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz, and Yoichiro Yoshikawa.) Umusuna is not Sankai Juku’s perfect work but is full of indelible perfection that will ultimately make you forget the less significant abstractions and haunt you with images and memories created before history.